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Radiation sickness

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Radiation sickness occurs from exposure to a large amount of radiation. The exposure may be in a series of doses spread over time (chronic) or in a single large dose (acute). Radiation exposure may be accidental or intentional.

The two main types of radiation are penetrating (ionizing) and nonpenetrating (nonionizing). Penetrating radiation affects you by entering your body and depositing radioactive energy into your tissues, which then can cause cell damage or cell death. Nonpenetrating radiation doesn't pass through your skin. A large dose of penetrating radiation may kill bone marrow cells, while a large dose of nonpenetrating radiation may burn your skin.

Radiation is a cancer-causing agent (carcinogen). Exposure to radiation can increase your risk of cancer. Large doses of radiation can cause other adverse health effects, including cataracts and mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy.

Risk factors

You can be exposed to radiation anywhere radioactive materials are used, such as in nuclear power plants, medical centers, research labs or mines where radioactive materials are removed. The amount of radiation from these sources is small and doesn't cause radiation sickness. However, the detonation of a nuclear weapon or radiological device such as a dirty bomb may release large amounts of radiation.

When to seek medical advice

If you or someone you know has been exposed to a large dose of radiation, seek emergency medical treatment. Evacuate the area of exposure. If you think you have radioactive material on your body, remove all exposed clothing and wash thoroughly with soap and water. Dry and wrap the affected areas with a towel or blanket until emergency medical assistance arrives.


Exposure to large doses of penetrating (ionizing) radiation causes radiation sickness. The condition can be chronic or acute:

  • Chronic radiation sickness. Chronic radiation sickness may take several days or weeks to develop. The cause can be radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion or an industrial accident. Radiation treatments for cancer also can cause temporary chronic radiation sickness.

  • Acute radiation sickness. Acute radiation sickness can develop quickly. A person with acute radiation sickness usually has been exposed to large amounts of radiation over a brief period of time, such as in the case of an industrial accident or a nuclear bomb explosion.

Exposure to radioactivity occurs through three main routes. The route by which you come in contact with radioactivity is important because each pathway results in radiation exposure to different parts of your body. Routes of exposure include:

  • Inhalation. Radiation exposure by inhalation occurs when you breathe radioactive material into your lungs. Radioactive particles can lodge in your lungs and remain there for an extended time. As long as these particles remain and continue to decay in your lungs, radiation exposure continues. Although inhaled radioactivity is not likely to result in radiation sickness, tissue damage from inhaled radioactivity eventually can lead to a higher risk of cancer or other diseases. The main sources of inhaled radiation include radon gas and radioactively contaminated dust or smoke.

  • Ingestion. Exposure to radiation by way of ingestion occurs when you swallow radioactive material. This pathway of exposure releases radioactive energy directly to your tissues, causing cell damage. While ingested radioactivity isn't likely to result in radiation sickness, tissue damage from ingested radioactivity eventually can lead to a higher risk of cancer. Sources of ingested radiation include contaminated drinking water, plants, fish and meat. Radiation doses from these sources usually are extremely small.

  • Direct (external) exposure. This route of exposure occurs from a source beaming out and striking your body. Examples of direct exposure include radiation treatments for cancer and radiation from an industrial accident or nuclear explosion.

  • Types of radiation vary in the ability to damage different kinds of body tissues. These types include:

  • Alpha particles. The least penetrating form of radiation, these can't penetrate the outer layer of your skin, but may be a risk if you have open wounds.

  • Beta particles. These can burn your skin and damage your eyes.

  • Gamma rays. The most penetrating kind of radiation, these can travel long distances and penetrate through your body.

Radiation sickness > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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